Candidates prepared for tougher times
Choices will help guide county's future
In most political circles, it's accepted that there is little purpose to a general election in Montgomery County. With nearly 322,000 Democrats and less than 122,000 Republicans out of 569,000 registered voters, there may be some merit to that thought, but that doesn't mean the races are decided in the closed party primaries.
Over the past several months, Gazette editors have continued a years-old tradition and interviewed dozens of candidates to arrive at endorsement recommendations, asking questions on a range of issues, broad and narrow: the plan to bring a Costco to Wheaton; how to link Shady Grove to Clarksburg via light rail or rapid bus; whether a local gas tax surcharge is needed; how to improve oversight on school spending; the systemic deficit in the budget; and more.
These interviews, coupled with responses to questionnaires, shine a light on which candidates are best informed, the most energized, and the most able to accomplish the difficult tasks that lie ahead. Montgomery faces a number of challenges, from grappling with budget cuts to easing traffic congestion, finding a new superintendent to lead high-quality schools, and maintaining a favorable business climate.
On Nov. 2, voters will have an opportunity to influence how those problems are addressed. And given the miserable turnout in the primary just 18 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, giving Montgomery the worst turnout in the state everyone can make a difference.
Democratic incumbent Isiah Leggett is the clear choice over Republican challenger Doug Rosenfeld. Leggett, like all political leaders in the past few years, has had to govern during an economic crisis. No one could have predicted such a precipitous drop from the boom times, fueled by a hyper-inflated housing market, during the previous few years. Leggett has helped the county stay focused. He has consistently made efforts to reduce annual spending increases compared to his predecessor and has sought ways to add revenue with minimal harm to core areas education, public safety and services for vulnerable residents. To that end, he has instituted furloughs, trimmed government positions and proposed revenue-generators, such as an ambulance transportation fee, that would have little impact on residents. He also instituted tax increases for cell phone and energy use, both of which have pinched household and business budgets.
Although Leggett has at times ruffled the feathers of other politicians and special-interest groups, he is an instinctive and affable leader who works well with all levels of government assets that he'll need to face the challenges ahead.
The county cannot continue to tax its residents and businesses to grow out of this economic hole, and it must work to improve an anti-business image that isn't helped by cumbersome development review processes. Most importantly, the county will have to address employee salaries and benefits, which account for 80 percent of a more than $4 billion budget. That will take leadership from Leggett, who has the opportunity to set the tone with union leaders early on and position the county for a robust recovery when the economy begins to turn the corner.
The all-Democratic County Council has four at-large members who represent the entire county and five members in district seats. All nine seats are up for election.
Three of the four candidates endorsed by The Gazette in the primary race are on the Nov. 2 ballot: Marc Elrich, Nancy Floreen and George Leventhal. They should return to the council.
Elrich's proposal for a bus rapid transit system that would serve the entire county is one of the more innovative and forward-looking plans to come from the council in some time. He is also sincere and straightforward, and his experience in planning will be a great asset to the council as Councilmember Mike Knapp, the chairman of the Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee, did not run for another term this year.
Leventhal's support of light rail for the Purple Line, which will link New Carrollton to Bethesda, and his support for programs to aid the vulnerable are his hallmarks.
Floreen's eight years on the council will be helpful as the county works to navigate through difficult times. Her efforts with the county's Office of Legislative Oversight to review the county's structural deficit will pay off when data from that report are made public and could provide a roadmap to fiscal sustainability.
The fourth seat should go to Robin Uncapher, a Republican facing an uphill battle against Democratic candidate Hans Riemer.
Uncapher, a human resources recruiter for government contractors, understands the nuances of private industry's relationship with the federal government a valuable resource given how much of the county's economy depends on what happens in Congress. She recognizes that county salaries are overly generous.
Uncapher is not as polished as Riemer, but her economic principles are more in line with the policies needed in the lean times ahead.
Democratic incumbent Roger Berliner gets the nod over challenger Rob Vricella, largely for constituent service. His push for a carbon emissions bill that targeted a single company in the county was misplaced, as the issue would be best handled by Congress. He continues to explore green technology as a cost-saver and economic development tool but needs to realize there are burdens from over-legislation.
Democrat Craig Rice is better suited to represent District 2 than Republican Robin Ficker. Rice and Ficker are seeking the seat vacated by retiring council member Mike Knapp. Rice has the temperament to work with others to negotiate for the best interests of the district.
While Rice's legislative accomplishments in the General Assembly are relatively thin, there are challenges in passing legislation as a freshman. Rice holds promise in offering a well-informed voice from the upcounty.
Incumbent Phil Andrews, unopposed in the election, has been one of the council's stalwarts on budget issues, pushing for tiered disability benefits for police officers to curb abuse and the repeal of a pension benefit based on raises that were never actually granted. Andrews is one of the most consistent and diligent members of the council and garners respect even among those who disagree with him.
Incumbent Nancy Navarro is a better choice that challenger David Horner. Navarro, elected to the council in 2009, has had time to acclimate to the council's operations and should be able to move the ball forward in her first full term. She's focused on the county's east-west imbalance when it comes to jobs and believes the FDA will play an important role in economic development in the east county. Navarro can be given a pass for what some have criticized as a lack of a voice in her first year, but following the election, she will have to assert herself in a council that needs strong leadership from her district, which includes Glenmont, Burtonsville and other east county areas.
Valerie Ervin, who will likely be the council's next president, is a far superior choice to challenger Joseph Russek. Ervin knows how to maneuver among the county's leadership. She also has expertise in education, which will be critical as the county chooses a new superintendent. One of her key roles as president will be the assignment of committee chairs, which will direct the county on key issues like transportation, economic development and public safety. Ervin has an intuitive understanding of her colleagues' strengths that will help guide those decisions.
Board of Education
Critics charge that the school board lacks transparency and that it tends to be a rubber stamp for Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. On the other hand, it's hard to argue against the level of success the system has attained in most measures from graduation rate (No. 1 among large school districts) to test score rankings and minority achievement.
Keeping the successes in mind, at-large school board incumbent Shirley Brandman is proud of the work that has been done to close the achievement gap among students, but says more is needed. She sees herself as helping to shepherd that process. She also notes that when she served as board president, the school system's core values were revised for the first time in 10 years. Those strong values pledge to do whatever it takes to ensure that success is not predictable by race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, language proficiency or disability.
In District 1, Judy Docca brings a committed voice to the concerns of black and Hispanic students. She has viewed minority academic achievement as a priority issue since joining the board. While proud of the 40 percent reduction in suspensions last school year, she says the rate is still too high. A longtime educator, Docca said she makes it a point of being available to her community.
In District 3, two solid candidates are vying for the seat. Challenger Karen Smith offers an impressive degree of dedication and a sharp lawyer's mind. But incumbent board President Patricia O'Neill, the longest tenured board member, brings experience and the skills necessary to help direct the board through a tough upcoming period continuing budget demands and the selection of a new superintendent to replace the retiring Weast. O'Neill deserves another term.
In District 5, Mike Durso is the choice. Incumbent Durso brings an educator's perspective to the board. He also has been more of an independent thinker than many of his colleagues, voting against the Pearson Education deal because he believed more time was needed to consider it. He also is questioning whether the threat to sue the County Council over education funding, as the board did last year, was appropriate. In addition, he believes more central office cuts might be necessary.
Darren Mark Popkin, a Democrat, is unopposed in the general election and will be the county's next sheriff. As chief deputy and a 25-year veteran of the sheriff's office, Popkin is well-positioned having longstanding and positive relationships with current staff and key personnel in other agencies to provide continuity and oversee the office through tight fiscal times.